Choke on Your Putts? Don’t Think About It. Better Yet, Here’s HOW to Think About It

A few months ago I posted a feature here about the science of choking under pressure, focusing on the work of University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock. A few days ago Bill Pennington ran a Times post about her work focusing on putting — a skill she uses in her labs to study the different ways we choke. (I played guinea pig one day in that lab, and it cost me $5. I was hustled.) The Times post writes this up nicely. Early on this caught my eye:

I began talking with Beilock last year after I wrote an article wondering why it is that young children learning the game always seem so good at putting. A 10-year-old, in my experience, almost never misses an easy, short putt. I figured it was because a 10-year-old doesn’t feel the weight of expectations and doesn’t have the scars of previous misses.

This reminded me of a putt my older son made several years back, when he was 10 or 11. He’d taken a few lessons that summer, and while his skills weren’t yet polished, you seldom saw him tighten up as he prepared a shot. So there’s something to this, I suppose. And one day we both made the green in one shot on a weird Par 3, and my son had his first op for a birdy. Only problem was, he was about 60 or 70 feet from the hole, and the line to the hole was perpendicular to a very steep slope. If he hit the ball straight at the hole, it would take a sharp right-hand curve and end up far from the target.

So he said, pointing left at a spot far uphill, on a line about 50 degrees to the left of the line from the ball to the cup, “I need to hit it way up there, right? By that brown spot?”

“Yes,” I said. “That seems about right. You’ll have to hit it pretty good to get it up there.” The radius of the arc he proposed was probably 50 feet, and the ball was going to have to travel, God only knows, probably well over 100 feet altogether, and unless it took a certain line and he launched it extremely firmly but at just the right speed he wasn’t going to end up anywhere close. I would have taken probably 5 minutes to walk and think it through.

Taylor says, “Okay,” bends over the ball, looks once at the hole and at the spot he picked out, and strokes it a good one. Ball goes waaaay up the hill, starts bending right, allllmost stops as it rides the contour line, and then starts rolling downhill. Almost all the bend is gone now; the ball’s rolling almost straight downhill. And drops smack into the middle of the cup.

God did we laugh.

You can do this too! Maybe. Here are Beilock’s tips, from the Times blog. My son followed the first one well.

¶ Be quick on the greens — not hurried, but not overly deliberate. “It helps to have a routine, but putting as quickly as was reasonable is a good idea,” she said. “We told people to err on the side of being quick, and it worked.”

¶ Find something to focus on, like the manufacturer’s name or logo on the ball. It can help prevent the prefrontal cortex from too closely regulating your movements.

¶ A one-, two- or three-word mantra helps. Like the word “smooth” while putting, or a three-word timing device during your swing. Something like, “back, and, through.”

¶ If you have serious putting problems, like the yips, changing your putting grip can reprogram the brain circuits to help you execute.

¶ Focus on the goal or target, not mechanics. Some people look at the hole rather than the ball, or visualize the back of the cup. “It sends a signal to the brain to achieve a certain outcome,” she said.

For a fuller look at Beilock’s work, see my feature or buy her book, Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To.

PS I’m in Britain right now, and when I used the term “choke,” the other day, a Brit told me they never use that word here, even insisted they had no equivalent for failing under pressure. I’m still trying to figure out whether I’m being messed with.

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